Dear Winnipeg

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It doesn’t need to make sense when you’re a City of Winnipeg traffic engineer!

Dear Winnipeg,

Last week, something strange and surreal happened at the Public Works Committee meeting. One Councillor showed a complete and utter mastery of transportation policy and presented a motion with the potential to not only improve transportation in Winnipeg, but completely transform it.

That Councillor is Vivian Santos.

Just like many cities worldwide are already doing, she was asking for our City to develop a plan for a temporary, city-wide, protected, connected bike network to be in place for as long as the COVID-19 pandemic lasts.

Her motion addressed transportation equity, climate change mitigation, social distancing, public safety, sustainability and even traffic congestion. It had it all!

And yet the motion failed to pass.

[I know, makes as much sense as a David Lynch plotline.]

So what happened?

Well, before we get to that, let me just say that it’s so very refreshing to see that Councillor Santos completely gets it.

[That’s probably why they named that candy after her!]

You guessed it – I am not a graphic designer.

And while they don’t have a mint named after them (yet!), it seems like many of the other members of Council might be starting to get it too.

So if it’s not Council’s fault, then whose is it?

Enter the Public Works department.

[Content Warning: If you work in the Public Works department, there’s an approximately 70% chance you are not going to like the rest of this letter.]

Here’s the problem with our Public Works department. While they say they support all of the things that represent a modern transportation system, nearly every report and recommendation that comes out of that department reflects last-century thinking. One that assumes that everyone (who matters) drives, and that traffic volumes will continue to increase, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

Here’s a recent example from last week for a pedestrian crossing control for Watt St:

Since […] this traffic volume is anticipated to nominally increase annually, it can be expected that in the near future traffic volumes will
likely exceed 15,000 vehicles per day.

— June 9, 2020 Report to Public Works Committee

Their recommendation is therefore to build the bigger piece of infrastructure, at six times the cost, simply because “traffic volume is anticipated to nominally increase annually”. As if we don’t have any control over traffic volumes.

First off, I feel like I can’t say this enough: we cannot afford a city where everyone drives.

Second, our Climate Action Plan, adopted unanimously by Council in October 2018, says that 70% of Winnipeggers today drive as their primary mode of choice (page 36), and our goal is to make that 50% by 2030 (page 21).

Here’s a rough idea of what that means using (barely) high-school level math:

Our 2018 population of 753,400 x 70% = 527,380 vehicles. (Turns out that’s pretty close the actual number of registered vehicles in Winnipeg, as per page 1-2 of this report).

Our 2030 projected population (using 1.5% annual growth) of 900,800 x 50% = 450,400 vehicles.

So let me spell this out. If we follow our Climate Action Plan, even with population growth, we’ll have less traffic in 2030 than we do today. Over 15% less in fact.

Let’s face it. We should be at Peak Car.

Which means we should also be at Peak Traffic, and any Public Works report that projects increased traffic obviously doesn’t take into account the climate lens that every City report is supposed to consider now. Fail.

Third, induced demand. This concept has been around for so long that even people outside of the transportation professions have heard about it.

To put it simply, induced demand says that if you build more capacity for cars, you will get more cars.

Put another way, people don’t decide how they get around. Cities decide how people get around. People only “choose” inasmuch as they choose the best option available to them out of those that the City has provided.

And if 70% of people “choose” to drive, it’s because the City has made it so. Nobody chooses to get around Winnipeg in a gondola, but only because the City has made it extremely difficult to get around in a gondola.

[I’ve tried. 0/10 Don’t recommend.]

But if we dug out ALL our streets and filled them with 10 feet of water, I think we’d see a lot more people choosing to get around by gondola. Not to mention canoes, motorboats, kayaks and hovercrafts.

And the “demand” for cars? It would sink. [Haha! Dad-joke sneak attack!]

We need to increase the share of other transportation modes, for equity, for social distancing, for traffic congestion, for the climate, for our own City budget. And it’s up to the Public Works department to make that happen.

But their actions show they are doubling-down on cars.

Still not convinced? Look up any Public Works committee agenda, and count the number of times a “traffic study” is recommended by the Public Works department.

Now try to find a time they recommended a bike study, or a walk audit, or an economic activity study, or a noise level study, or any other aspect of our streets we could be measuring. [Gondola study, anyone?]

If all we measure are cars, why should we expect to get anything else?

On top of all that, the Public Works department follows different rules when building infrastructure for cars than for other modes, like bikes.

As an example, let’s take the Chief Peguis Extension, which like we’ve discussed, should never, ever be built. But just for fun, let’s try building it in the same way they’re suggesting for the bike network.

Building the Chief Peguis Extension, using “baby steps”

We start by building this one small segment. Then, we can take traffic counts, and collect feedback from the public. Based on that data, we can then decide whether the uptake is sufficient to warrant adding any more.

You don’t need a crystal ball, or an engineering degree, to predict how that will turn out.

An Active Transportation network needs to take you to all the things, that is, it needs to actually BE a network. And so we should look to Calgary, where a complete temporary network was set up all at once, then improved hundreds of times over a period of over a year, before being made permanent. That’s real “baby steps”.

But for some reason, whenever a City traffic engineer speaks, Councillors tend to listen. Even when it’s clearly nonsense.

Why? I don’t know. Some would say it’s because Councillors aren’t engineers and so they should defer to the experts.

But Councillors aren’t planners either, and we’ve seen how seriously they take those recommendations.

What if Council started treating the Public Works department the same way they treat the Planning department, by walking all over them and overturning their recommendations whenever they don’t suit them?

That would probably be most of the time, as long as their recommendations keep mimicking best practices from the 1970s.

I mean, I guess we can’t really lay ALL the blame at Public Works’ feet. If their skills seem so out of date, it’s because of year after year after year of Council-mandated budget cuts. We shouldn’t be surprised that professional development spending is one of the first things to go.

[Well look at that! Turns out it IS Council’s fault after all...]

It’s time.

Time to work towards a financially sustainable transportation system.

Time to shift to transportation modes that are less carbon-intensive.

Time to provide transportation options that allow every Winnipegger to have equal access to our city.

Time to drag the Public Works department into the 21st Century, kicking and screaming if we have to.

Or move ahead without them.

But while we’re at it, we should also invest in a little professional development. We do want them to eventually catch up.

Hugs and kisses,

Elmwood Guy